Barack Obama

Unwelcome traits

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2009, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama's visit to China has resulted in a new framework for a bilateral relationship in which the two countries will treat each other as equals and will work together as partners to deal with the world's economic, strategic and other issues.

This is a breathtaking new world order and, while neither side will call it a G2, the joint statement that they signed is at the very least an agreement for global burden-sharing. To what extent it will work remains to be seen. But it does show that the US is willing to accommodate a rising China and that Beijing is willing to assume the responsibility that comes with greater power. These are important and encouraging developments.

However, the visit also raises some worrying issues: just what are the values of this rising China, and how will it behave in its new-found role as a global leader? For one thing, while Obama attempted to behave in a respectful fashion towards his Chinese counterparts, his treatment suggests that Beijing now feels it no longer has to defer to Washington.

Thus, while it had allowed previous American presidents to speak directly to the Chinese people through the live broadcasting of their televised speeches nationwide, this privilege was withheld from Obama even though the Americans thought there was such an agreement. So while Obama was able to hold a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai, speaking to young men and women, the event was only broadcast by a local TV station, severely limiting his potential audience.

Moreover, the Southern Weekend newspaper - given an exclusive interview with Obama - delivered newspapers to some subscribers that did not carry the interview, apparently for technical reasons. And, subsequently, the Central Propaganda Department banned further distribution of the interview and ordered websites and other media not to reproduce it.

This raises the suspicion that China, after 30 years of opening up, still sees the US as a source of 'spiritual pollution' and wants to insulate its people from contamination. In other words, Beijing does not want Washington to put ideas such as democracy and accountability, and the free flow of information, into people's minds.

And, instead of having a proper press conference, we were treated to a spectacle where something called a 'joint press conference' was held, with the two leaders each reading a prepared statement. Not a single question was allowed. Hopefully, that is not a foretaste of press conferences with Chinese characteristics. Such incidents create the suspicion that China's former willingness to be open was a result of it not being strong enough to resist American requests. The treatment Obama received gives the impression that, given its way, China would not allow any US president to talk to the Chinese people.

The logical conclusion is that China is so determined that the Communist Party should remain in power it is prepared to keep its people in a state of perpetual ignorance. The close relationship China enjoys with autocracies such as Myanmar also suggests that, given the choice, China would prefer a global environment that is comfortable for authoritarian rulers.

After Obama's departure, news leaked that he had brought up with Hu the case of Xue Feng, an American geologist detained since 2007. The Chinese had not notified the Americans promptly of his detention, as required by a consular agreement. Xue had reportedly been abused by Chinese interrogators who allegedly pressed lit cigarettes into his arm.

As China prepares to take on a major global role, it would do well if the country's leaders rethought their attitudes and policies, not only towards the rest of the world, but towards their own people as well.

After all, if China is a country where people are illegally detained and mistreated, and where its citizenry is kept in ignorance, is this a nation whose rise is likely to be welcomed by the rest of the world?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator